Sounding off

At 78, Cynthia Ozick has a lot to say about today's youth.

cynthia ozick 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
cynthia ozick 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The Din in the Head: Essays By Cynthia Ozick Houghton Mifflin 256 pages Cynthia Ozick once said, "If we had to say what writing is, we would have to define it essentially as an act of courage." Ozick is a complex writer and an even more complicated figure, and her work and the writings that have been put forth about her reveal an intriguing but not always likeable figure. But as Ozick has admitted herself, she was never very interested in writing for her readers, or even for her publishers and agents; they were merely a conduit into print; she has always been writing for herself. Life, which has included a daughter Rachel and a loyal husband, has always been an interruption, one Ozick admits resenting. She is happy now in old age to be able to recede to her writing room undisturbed. When home repairs or a noisy phone interfere with her productivity, the equally rebellious and self-disciplined 78-year-old author stays up extra late in order to make sure she isn't cheated of her self-imposed daily quota of reading and writing; an ecstasy that has never waned for her. When asked by an interviewer if she ever gets lonely staying up so late at night alone with her own active imagination, she scoffed at her questioner's na vet ; work has always been her enduring passion. Never one to lay out drafts for her often complicated and layered novels, she polishes each sentence to perfection, one at a time, before allowing herself to move on to the next one; this is a divine act for Ozick, who seems to have a deeply religious spiritual fervor within her that is always fighting with her restless intellect. Ozick grew up in the Bronx, where her parents ran a pharmacy that usually meant 14-hour days. She describes her childhood as somewhat idyllic, recalling hours spent on her belly in a sun room in their home reading anything she could get her hands on. Public school was more difficult; she was friendless and often the target of anti-Semitic jeering, but the world she lived in was already the one in her own mind; she knew she was going to become a writer. She is almost reverential in recalling her mother's easy and unencumbered laughter and remembers her father's seriousness about learning; he was a Jewish scholar. Intellectual joy came as naturally to Ozick as did her solitariness. What seems to haunt her more than anything else about this time is the adult knowledge she has now that as her mind was exploding into realms of literature, her brethren were being annihilated in Europe as she slept and ate and read voluptuously. This seems to be the proverbial lump stuck in her throat, one that seems to have fueled much of her writing with layers of guilt and shame and longing and horror and a basic mistrust in any permanent security. Ozick has extensively studied Jewish philosophy, history and literature and her writing, which includes more than a dozen acclaimed and award-winning works of fiction and nonfiction, fuses pathos and intellect, creating unforgettable works on a diverse range of topics, many of them fierce polemics on feminism, anti-Semitism, Israel, Palestinians, the role of art in society and the dangers of Holocaust denial. But her writing always echoes with the shadow of an outsider, someone who watches the world around her from the sanctity of her own room, and this sometimes seems to blight her psychological insights. She describes her writing room as an oasis, a place where she prefers to "sit in a tiny room off the bedroom. It's got a window, and I don't face the window because I don't want to be distracted. It has no plants in it, because I don't want anything to breathe or live around me." It is Ozick against the world. Ozick had a brazen streak early on. When an editor red-inked her manuscript with a promise to publish her work if she implemented his changes, she walked out, and found someone who would publish her novel as she commanded, an amazing feat of bravery for a still unpublished author who had been working on this book for many years. Her first novel was not printed until she was almost 40. IN HER NEW and compelling book of essays, The Din in My Head, Ozick is able to create an exquisite mosaic of work on topics that still intrigue her. She tackles Helen Keller, John Updike, Jonathan Franzen, Delmore Schwartz, Saul Bellow, Sylvia Plath, Tolstoy, Kipling, Isaac Babel, Gershom Scholem and others, always finding what others haven't seen. She is irritated by today's popular notion that anything is as good as anything else and insists, at the risk of sounding elitist, that "a novel concerned with English country house romances is not the same as a tract on slavery in Antigua. A department of English is not the same as a Marxist tutorial. A rap CD is not the same as academic scholarship. A suicide bomber who blows up a pizzeria with baby carriages is not the same as a nation builder." Ozick is disturbed by the unstoppable intrusion into artists' lives, believing that the artists' work must stand separate from their personal foibles. In a wonderful essay on Sylvia Plath, she condemns those who sift through Plath's journals and diaries looking for clues to her eventual downfall, feeling that in the end, the poetry and the passion Plath created is really all that counts. In another piece on Lionel Trilling, she laments the damage that has been done to his reputation by the writings of his wife and son after his death, believing Trilling to have been a dignified literary intellectual who brought an unusual level of gravitas to Columbia, where he taught. She is irked by the tendency of today's graduate literature departments to submerge themselves in deconstruction, cultural studies, gender studies and other obscure and faddish movements that trivialize the complexity of literary analysis which Trilling perfected. The reader can't help but sense that Ozick's sharpness and certainty of vision has not mellowed with age. Yet, sometimes there is the feeling that Ozick has put a large bed sheet between her and the world and carved a hole in it for her to look through. But like much of her magical fiction, it is a one-way hole that she opens and closes at her discretion, letting others see her only when she wants to. There is guardedness always in Ozick combined with a seriousness of purpose regarding all the key issues linked to being Jewish in this century, and a continued pursuit of her own excellence.